By Bob Chrisman
Pond at Ghost Ranch, Ghost Ranch, NM, April 2008, photo © 2008 by Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.
Who can forget that fateful trip to Abiquiu, New Mexico to visit Ghost Ranch? A brief recounting of the experience appears in Natalie Goldberg’s latest book about writing memoir, Old Friend from Far Away, but I didn’t recognize her account even though we were both on that same trip.
Twenty-four people left Taos in silence for Abiquiu that hot, August morning, drinking lots of water to avoid dehydration. The journey took at least three hours.
At the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge we slow walked to the middle and peered over the railing. Our teacher told us to leap over the short walls of the pedestrian walkway and hurriedly slow walk across the busy highway to the other side. I still can’t figure out why we crossed the road. One side of the Rio Grande Gorge looks pretty much like the other side except for the appliances and cars that people have thrown into it.
We took a “short cut” on a packed dirt road with a washboard surface. Add a few thousand potholes, more dust than you should swallow in a lifetime, and speeds of up to 60 mph. When we reached the highway, one of my kidneys had dislodged and the other one was traumatized.
We stopped at Bode’s where twenty-four overly hydrated people visited the two bathrooms. Twenty-two of the people were women. One women’s bathroom with one stool made for a long line that moved very slowly.
Outside our teacher ordered people into cars for a short trip up the hill to look over the adobe wall of Georgia O’Keeffe’s former home and into her former front yard. O’Keeffe had a nice lawn from what I could see. That whole process must have taken another 45 minutes.
When we arrived at Ghost Ranch we drove past the main buildings to a parking area near a “long house” with no walls, three floor fans, and a soda machine. We piled out of the cars for slow walking to the pond, where we would swim.
As the group disappeared down the trail I noticed a sign: “PLAGUE PRECAUTIONS.” I stopped to read the fine print.
Because plague is endemic in New Mexico and fleas and rodents with plague have been found at Ghost Ranch, we ask you to follow these guidelines when hiking here:
- wear insect repellent and dust pets
- absolutely stay away from alive, sick, or dead rodents and their burrows
- report any sick or dead rodents to the office at Ghost Ranch.
The rest of the sign explained how plague was transmitted and described the symptoms.
Now, really, I don’t dust my house let alone my pets. Who actually believes that insect repellent works on rodents? And you don’t need to tell me to “absolutely stay away” from rodents in any state of health. I fantasized about how I would report sick or dead ones.
Well, sir, I saw this sick rodent holding its stomach and frothing at the mouth at the cactus about 20 feet past the hogan.
Well, one of the 6,000 near that place.
I caught up with the group as some members were jumping into the jade green water of the pond. Being from Missouri I do not swim in water where I cannot see the bottom, because unpleasant things live in murky water. I sat on the ground amidst the rodent burrows, and who knows how many sick and dead creatures, to have my lunch, which consisted of a hot plum and a warm pork sandwich. I couldn’t eat. Then someone broke the silence with an ear-piercing scream.
“EKKKKKKK!!! There are big black snakes!!!”
Our teacher calmly said, “Leave them alone and they won’t bother you.” On that note, I abandoned the hike for the shelter of the long house where I joined three other people to await the return of our classmates.
Three or four hours later the happy hikers returned in silence. We made a stop at the Visitors’ Center to use the bathrooms, buy trinkets, and purchase more water for the journey home. We climbed in our cars and waved good-bye to what I will always remember as “Goat Ranch.”
The journey home only took a couple of hours — for some of us. The lead car turned onto the highway and disappeared over the horizon. Since no one else knew how to get back to Taos, we all put the pedal to the metal and caught the leader, temporarily. We lost her again at a critical turn. Three cars turned left and two cars turned right. Those of us who turned left made it back to Taos in an hour. The two cars that turned right wandered in the desert like the ancient Israelites, finally arriving in Taos about two hours later, mad and not speaking to any of the rest of us.
The whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth, or maybe that was the dust. I vowed never to return to the Ranch.
Several weeks ago a writing friend talked me into a stay of a few days at Ghost Ranch. I balked, but she finally convinced me.
I knew this trip would be different when the journey from Taos only took 1½ hours. We stayed in lovely rooms atop a mesa with a panoramic view. We enjoyed quiet meals in the cafeteria. We took pictures. I returned to the plague area to see if it was as bad as I remembered. It wasn’t, but then it was April, the temperatures cooler, the drive not as long, my kidneys weren’t traumatized, and the rodents seemed healthier and, I assumed, less plague-ridden.
I’m glad that I re-visited Ghost Ranch. I have a new feeling about the place — but deep in my heart I will always remember the trip from Hell, the trip to Goat Ranch.
Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer whose pieces Hands and Growing Older have appeared in red Ravine.